All boats are designed and made with a specific purpose in mind, whether it is for leisurely trips along the river or for speed and agility to win races. Father’s Day, the boxy bright red boat in our Main Hall, is no exception. She was designed to be small – as small as possible. Her designer and maker, Hugo Vihlen, allowed enough room for everything he needed to sail across the Atlantic Ocean – no room for luxuries, no room for non-essentials and barely any room for him.
A Korean War fighter pilot and former Delta Airlines Captain, Vihlen previously made an 85 day crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1968 in what was then the smallest boat to have made the journey, the 5ft 11 inch sailing boat April Fool. To Hugo’s dismay his arch rival Tom McNally seized the World Record in 1993 by making the Atlantic crossing in a 5ft 4 ½ inch boat.
Determined to reclaim the record Hugo set out alone later that same year to cross the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Falmouth, having been banned from launching in the United States by the Coastguard, who declared his boat unsafe. This time he was in his plywood and fibreglass vessel Father’s Day, his home-built boat, which was, crucially, half an inch shorter than McNally’s.
During the crossing Hugo had to sleep on his back with his knees bent: he woke every hour to check his heading and general sailing conditions, as a consequence of which he never drifted more than 10 miles off course. After facing everything the Atlantic could throw at him, and some close encounters with large ships, Hugo arrived in Falmouth 105 days later. He could hardly walk, had lost 34 pounds in weight, but he had recaptured his record.
His reception on arrival in Falmouth was hardly a hero’s welcome. One of the waiting journalists found him a pasty to eat while his boat was towed to a local yacht club. When the party arrived at the yacht club for a celebration tea they found it closed as he wasn’t expected, so a member of the public produced a bottle of champagne to toast his success.
What better time to look back at Hugo Vihlen’s daring achievements than on Father’s Day. 16 years later, along with his boxy bright red boat Father’s Day, he, perhaps unsurprisingly, still holds the World Record for sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in the smallest boat.
Father’s Day is currently on display in our Main Hall.